BISMARCK — Ward Koeser sees four eagles and a turkey on North Dakota’s new Ethics Commission.
“And I’m the turkey,” the former Williston mayor said, laughing.
The Ethics Commission born by voters' approval of a 2018 initiated constitutional measure held its first, mostly organizational meetings last week in Bismarck. It's scheduled to meet monthly into spring. Its five members live in different parts of the state and have backgrounds that include legal, judicial and governmental experience.
"They all seem to be very successful in what they've done in life, in the world, and I'm just a common guy from Williston, N.D.," said Koeser, appointed to a two-year term on the panel.
The Ethics Commission is tasked with investigating complaints against lawmakers, state elected officials, lobbyists and candidates for office. It's expected to write its own rules related to lobbying, elections, transparency and corruption.
Leading the committee is Chairman Ron Goodman, a retired judge in Oakes who will serve a four-year term.
He said he applied for the board, among nearly 70 others, due to his background in counseling and his previous role as chairman of the state's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, which advises judges and judicial candidates in questionable scenarios.
"I did it for so many years, and I would give a lot of consideration to what was ethical behavior, what was not ethical behavior and making judgments along those lines," Goodman said.
At the Ethics Commission's first meeting, he disclosed he reconsidered his candidacy owing to his winters in Wisconsin and neuropathy affecting his feet, but he said he may attend meetings via video call if necessary.
Goodman and Paul Richard, an attorney and retired Sanford Health executive from Fargo, are the only members of the Ethics Commission who knew one another prior to their Sept. 1 appointments. They attended the University of North Dakota's School of Law at the same time.
Richard said he applied for the commission to "give back to the state" in an area similar to his legal background and previous experience with professional ethics. He and his fellow commissioners said they appreciate the different background each one brings to the board.
"Anytime you have a group of individuals with a diverse background and experiences, I think it helps in any discussion or issue that may come up before that group," said Richard, who will serve a two-year term.
Burgum, Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, sought geographic and gender balance in narrowing candidates for the Ethics Commission.
But while the members hail from around the state, only one is a woman.
Cankdeska Cikana Community College President Cynthia Lindquist, of St. Michael on the Spirit Lake Reservation, said it would have been nice to have more women on the commission, but she looks forward to learning from her fellow commissioners whose backgrounds she called "distinguished."
She was executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission for four years under former Gov. Ed Schafer.
A couple of state lawmakers whom she declined to name asked her to apply for the commission, she said.
"Most of my profession and career and what I do is about giving back," said Lindquist, who is vice chairwoman of the Ethics Commission and serves a four-year term. "It's a cultural thing, but I think it's also somewhat a North Dakota thing. We like to serve and want to help. People brought this forward, and so then why not respond?"
Retired Brig. Gen. David Anderson, of Bismarck, said he "felt humbled" by his selection for the ethics panel. He applied to help "develop commonsense rules and definitions," given his military and veterans affairs experience.
"I sometimes get frustrated with rules, so I would like to help ... steer the path for commonsense rules," said Anderson, who has been coordinator of military student services at the University of Mary since 2015.
He said he was "in the middle of the road" on the measure that bore the Ethics Commission, but ultimately voted no, as did Koeser, who said he applied at the suggestion of state Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, who served on the city commission with him.
Lindquist and Richard declined to say how they voted on the measure. Goodman has said he voted yes.
Jack McDonald, a lobbyist and attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association who is familiar with public boards, said the Ethics Commission members were "excellent choices."
"I think they really fulfill what the constitutional amendment provided in that these are people who, I think, are knowledgeable about the process but aren't really involved directly in it," McDonald said. "I think that was the intent or at least it seems like that was the intent of the creation of the commission."
Ellen Chaffee, who led the effort to pass the measure, thanked Burgum, Wardner and Heckaman for their "high-integrity process" to name the panel.
"I think the Ethics Commission is off to a wonderful start," Chaffee previously said.
The ethics panel has monthly meetings booked out to May 2020. Its first meetings mostly addressed establishing its office and acquainting its members with state procedures.
It's unknown how much of its work will be confidential or related to any complaints that might come in.
For now, its members have busied themselves with finding office space, setting up email accounts and beginning to hire an executive director and administrative assistant.
The Ethics Commission's next meetings are Oct. 23-24 at the state Capitol in Bismarck.